Movie psy­chos much cuter, fun­nier than the real thing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - ALI­SON GILL­MOR

SEVEN Psychopaths, which opened in Win­nipeg on Fri­day, is a psy­cho-killer com­edy, a nar­row lit­tle genre that is at once hor­rif­i­cally vi­o­lent and weirdly hi­lar­i­ous. Writ­ten and di­rected by Ir­ish play­wright-turned-film­maker Martin Mc­Don­agh ( In Bruges), it’s a twisty look at the cult of the movie psy­chopath.

Colin Far­rell plays a dis­placed Ir­ish writer who also hap­pens to be named Martin. Half-drunk and dazed by L.A. sun­light, he’s stalled out on a screen­play, which in typ­i­cal meta-movie fash­ion is called Seven Psychopaths. The char­ac­ters within our movie spend a lot of time gab­bing about their movie, the two sto­ry­lines even­tu­ally fus­ing into one sly, self-ref­er­enc­ing post­mod­ern cir­cuit.

Mc­Don­agh hands out lots of bloody vi­o­lence, while ex­am­in­ing our cin­e­matic crav­ing for it. He also goes af­ter our fas­ci­na­tion with psychopaths while stack­ing up seven of his own. (If not more: Af­ter the first half-dozen killings, I kind of lost count.) This might be seen as hav­ing it both ways if Mc­Don­agh weren’t so funny and smart, and the cast wasn’t so de­li­ciously crazed.

The movies have con­structed a Hol­ly­wood ver­sion of the psy­chopath, mak­ing him (or oc­ca­sion­ally her) into an enig­matic, end­lessly in­ter­est­ing an­ti­hero. Oh, that Han­ni­bal Lecter in The Si­lence of the Lambs. So re­fined, so cul­tured, such ex­quis­ite man­ners — at least un­til he rips your face off and eats you. Or that An­ton Chig­urh in No Coun­try For Old Men. A mur­der­ous coin-flip­per with a Prince Valiant hair­cut, he’s like a walk­ing metaphor for ex­is­ten­tial ab­sur­dity.

With com­pe­ti­tion like this, on­screen Martin re­al­izes he needs a catchy an­gle. Maybe a mass­mur­der­ing Bud­dhist psy­chopath, he thinks. Or per­haps Amish? Clearly, his screen­play needs a hook.

Mean­while, he’s sur­rounded by off-screen Martin’s psychopaths — Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stan­ton and Woody Har­rel­son, all in­fin­itely more in­ter­est­ing than ac­tual psychopaths. Waits trav­els ev­ery­where with a white bunny. Stan­ton is a Quaker. Har­rel­son’s one true love is a shih tzu pup named Bon­nie. Mc­Don­agh seems to be tak­ing the “psy­chopath with a quirk” trope to de­lib­er­ately silly ex­tremes.

As well, sev­eral of the tit­u­lar seven are psychopaths who kill only other psychopaths. This could be a side­ways dig at Dex­ter, TV’s sadis­tic se­rial killer who preys only on other sadis­tic se­rial killers. Dex­ter plays into our voyeuris­tic fas­ci­na­tion with cru­elty while si­mul­ta­ne­ously sat­is­fy­ing our in­dig­nant de­mand for jus­tice. It’s a morally du­bi­ous propo­si­tion, and again, Mc­Don­agh seems to de­flate it by over­do­ing it. I mean, how many se­rial-killer-killing se­rial killers is one guy likely to know?

There’s even a ques­tion about whether Martin him­self is patho­log­i­cal. Strug­gling with writer’s block, Martin be­comes a lit­tle preda­tory, prone to see­ing the hu­man be­ings around him only as po­ten­tial ma­te­rial. Then there’s his com­i­cally vi­car­i­ous re­la­tion­ship to vi­o­lence. (“He’s not part of this,” says Martin’s lu­natic friend Sam Rock­well dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly nasty stretch. “He’s just writ­ing a movie.”) Mc­Don­agh gets a lot of comic play from the idea that pen­cil-push­ing lit­er­ary types are so of­ten fas­ci­nated with bru­tal crim­i­nal un­der­worlds where they them­selves wouldn’t last a minute.

Maybe the fi­nal word is given to the sub­limely time-rav­aged Christo­pher Walken, who plays a courtly, cra­vat-wear­ing dog-nap­per. “You’re the one who thought psychopaths were so in­ter­est­ing,” he says ac­cus­ingly to Martin. “But af­ter a while, they get tire­some, don’t you think?”

Jon Ron­son, the British jour­nal­ist who wrote The Psy­chopath Test, might con­cur. Jour­ney­ing among peo­ple who score high on the Hare Psy­chopa­thy check­list, he finds not colourful movie ma­ni­acs but mostly vain, te­dious, self­ag­gran­diz­ing gas­bags. He also points out that the av­er­age psy­chopath is more likely to be guilty of cal­lous cor­po­rate malfea­sance than blood-splat­tered slay­ings.

Mc­Don­agh might be sug­gest­ing that real-life psychopaths are a drag, but, para­dox­i­cally, he has a hel­luva time do­ing it. What­ever the fi­nal body count in Seven Psychopaths, clearly the Hol­ly­wood-style psy­chopath is not quite dead.


From left, Colin Far­rell, Christo­pher Walken and Sam Rock­well in Seven Psychopaths.

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